The Cranes are Flying: expressive and soulful film of hope despite the tragedy of war

Mikhail Kalatozov, “The Cranes are Flying / Letyat zhuravli” (1957)

A soulful film of hope and optimism amid the cruelties of war, this story of a tragic romance between two young people, Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), during World War II is noted for the expressive acting depth of its main characters and Kalatozov’s skilful direction. The story itself is realistic soap-opera drama: Boris answers the call to war and leaves his young fiancee Veronika at home. He is killed in battle but ends up listed as missing. In the meantime, Veronika takes refuge with Boris’s family and Mark, a cousin of Boris, takes advantage of Veronika one night. The girl is shamed into marrying Mark and Boris’s immediate family accepts her but in a surly way. The family is evacuated to Siberia where Fyodor Ivanovich (Vasily Merkuryev), Veronika’s father-in-law, is in charge of a hospital and Veronika herself is drafted in as a nurse. A soldier patient gets upset about his girlfriend deserting him and Fyodor Ivanovich consoles the guy by telling him the young lady isn’t worth a kopeck and is as bad as the fascists for betraying him and Russia. Veronika overhears the conversation and flees, as though to commit suicide.

Fortunately for the rest of the film, Veronika doesn’t top herself but instead finds new hope through a young abandoned child and a chance meeting between Fyodor Ivanovich and a government official unravels a secret Mark has hidden from the family and Veronika; as a result Mark must leave. Eventually the family does learn of Boris’s fate and Veronika is heart-broken.

Samoilova deserved every best actress award on offer on the planet for her subtle and expressive performance as Veronika at the time but of course never got it: she might not say a great deal in the film but her uncommonly beautiful face reveals considerable emotional turmoil as she endures one indignity or tragedy after another. Her character is only meant to be a stereotype – Veronika represents Soviet woman and her experiences are intended to be representative of what many if not most Soviet women would experience during war – but Samoilova invests Veronika with a vitality that starts out as youthful and innocent and becomes more worldly-wise and less joyful if still defiant in parts. Other characters might get less to do but the men, in particular the actors playing Boris, Fyodor Ivanovich and the harmonica-playing soldier, though more stoic and restricted in emotional expression, are just as effective in conveying feeling and opinion in their body language and in the way they touch or react to Veronika. Veronika’s sister-in-law Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) may not be very important to the plot but effectively embodies contempt for Veronika in her belief that the girl has betrayed Boris.

The film is beautifully made, courtesy of impressive handheld camera work by Sergei Urusevsky: several staged scenes, shot from often unusual or peculiar angles, show emotional distance or sorrow to great effect (the scene in which Fyodor Ivanovich’s family reluctantly accepts Veronika after her marriage to Mark is a highlight as is also the scene in which everyone hears of Boris’s death); and there are two scenes in which the camera gloriously spins around to imitate giddy youthful love (Boris racing up a spiral staircase early in the film) or to simulate desperate attempts to hang onto life (Boris in his dying moments, looking up at the sky and the bare birch trees). Another great scene of Expressionist-style patchy edits is of Veronika racing a train and then a car while despairing over the conversation she has just overheard her father-in-law have with the soldier patient: the jagged shots quickly assume an abstract painterly quality, the music ratchets up in suspense, and just when you think the girl is going to throw herself off a bridge or under the car, she spies a toddler and saves the child. Plus there’s a great scene of switching viewpoints: Veronika chases after Fyodor Ivanovich and the camera then smoothly draws back and pulls away from her to focus on several Soviet soldiers in a bus being taken to a hospital.

For Western viewers, unusual and unintentional symbolism arrives in the V-formation of a flock of cranes flying across the sky at the beginning and at the end of the film: Kalatozov could not have known what this might mean as the sound represented by the letters “V” and “v” in the Latin alphabet actually appears as “B” and “b” in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian.

It may be a propaganda film with a banal soap opera plot – the ending is fairly wooden compared with what’s happened previously – but what a stunning and emotionally complex work “The Cranes …” turned out to be under the sure hands of Kalatozov and Urusevsky among others.

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